Education in Thailand- By Ka, Amanda, and Katie

Education- A Human Capital Asset in Northern Thailand

A wise friend once said, “your education is your religion.”  From the moment we are born, we enter a lifetime of learning and education. This is true no matter who you are and where you live. As elementary education and family social science majors, the three of us (Ka Vang, Amanda Bartholf, and Katie Zellner) decided to focus on education in Northern Thailand. During our two weeks here, we have witnessed education and teaching take on many forms. The three of us will be approaching education from different angles and in a variety of domains. We hope that by the end of this, everyone will expand their understanding of what education is. Teaching and learning is not just in the classroom, but stretches out to the home, to the community, to the world, and back to us. What we learn in life shapes our way of living and view of the world. It is what guides us to become who we are. Education is in many ways, life.

Ka: Like all other young adults, I’m fearful of my future. What if I don’t know what to do in life? What if my life becomes meaningless? For my entire life, I was told to strive for the American dream. To go to school and graduate college… to own a house and start a family… to retire happy and content with my life. As a Hmong-American, the American Dream was supposed to be my purpose in life. At a very young age, I was taught to believe and value certain things: independence, physical health, speaking up, beauty, intelligence, etc. Back in the US, we call it the “hidden curriculum”. It’s not stated in our academic standards, nor is it a requirement for students to take courses in it. Yet somehow, certain morals and values have been instilled in us. We all have been educated to think and behave in a particular way. The hidden curriculum is culture itself. While I have been here in Thailand, I have learned about their culture and way of life. There’s one thing I am sure about; it’s that Thai people believe in having a pure heart and helping others; that’s their “dream”. The way America paints the American dream is the same way Thailand teaches their people to value a generous heart. I want to focus particularly on Buddhism and how its teachings have influenced Thailand’s curriculum. Acharn Kathy states that students take official courses in Buddhism. So while not completely “hidden”, Buddhist teachings appear outside of the classroom as well. During our chat with a Hmong-Thai monk, Jou Lee, in Chiang Mai, I learned a lot about Buddhism and its teachings. Some of the main highlights I remember were:

  • To not commit bad acts (killing, hurting others, etc.)
  • To not follow blind faith and follow what’s true to your heart
  • Take care of your mind and body
  • To release yourself from suffering
  • Happiness is giving and getting
During the monk chat, I felt like I began to understand why Thai people behaved the way they did. I think Buddhism plays a lot into this. Thailand is a country where 90% of its people follow Buddhism. What I know about Buddhism seems to come to life when I interact with Thai people. Buddhism teaches people to have a good heart and give to others. No matter how little or much a person has, they always seem to work hard and help others. I saw this prevalent in many of the people and places we met:
  1. Mekong school (local leaders coming together to empower communities who live by the Mekong river).
  2. Suksasongkroh Chiang Dao School (providing educational opportunities for students in poverty)
  3. Eve’s story (working hard in school and life and giving back to schools like chiang Dao)
  4. Hmong villages (structuring their village on equality and generating income)
While strolling the market one night outside out Chiang Khong hotel, a couple friends and I stumbled upon an elderly woman selling eggrolls. We stopped by her cart to buy some food and ended up with a conversation about her life. She told us that her daughter was all the way in Bangkok for school, a story that seemed to be common among many Thai parents. She also said that on nights that she didn’t sell food, she cooks for students in a school in Chiang Rai. No pay at all. She does it because she understands in giving and helping others. She does it so that the students can continue their education. She does it because she has been learning from Thailand’s hidden curriculum.
Beautiful  Thai-Vietnamese cook from the streets of Chiang Khong

Education and Families in Northern Thailand 
Katie: As a family social science student I think primarily about the family as a system, interacting with environments such as schools, communities, culture, etc. When it comes to education, I thought it would be interesting to explore how education impacts the family system. I want to focus mostly on boarding schools, where children may leave their families at a very young age to pursue an education. Specifically, what happens when that child finishes their education and returns home?  While I may not know the exact answers at this time, I’m going to use some of my own background knowledge to understand ways this might play out.

During our first week in Thailand we visited Suksasongkroh Chiang Dao School. This is a diverse boarding school for children from 9 ethnic minorities or hill tribes. These children often live in rural communities who don’t have a lot of other opportunities, and in some cases, may be at risk for being sold into human trafficking. I do not want to downplay this amazing opportunity these children were given because it’s possible that for some of them this was their only shot at a better life for themselves. However, boarding school means that many of the children live at the school away from their families. In many ways, especially for the very young students in first grade, their teacher becomes a stand in parent for them. The teacher is there to put them to bed and take care of them when they are sick. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for the children’s actual parents to know they aren’t the ones doing this for their child. I think of my own mother who still wishes she could come to take care of me whenever I’m sick even though I’m 21 years old. Then I think of how much trust these mothers must have in the teachers. The mothers are essentially trusting the teachers to take care of their children the way they would. Knowing that the teacher is taking over these mothering roles for the young ones, I’m interested to know if they eventually develop a closer attachment to the teachers than their parents. To my understanding, attachment seems to form based on not only the amount of interaction, but also the ability to fulfill a child’s needs. Young children attach from birth to their primary caregivers, so it seems likely that before coming to school, the child did achieve attachment with his or her mother, but as the teacher steps into that mothering role I have a hard time imaging the child not forming an attachment with the teacher. How does this attachment affect the mother child relationship? It must put at least a little strain on it I believe. When the child grows up and looks back at their childhood who are they going to credit as their primary caregiver?

We also observed at the school that the children are being taught the Thai language right from the start of their education. I’m not sure how many opportunities the children have to speak their native language, but I can see possible problems stemming from this. For example, if they retain enough of their language to communicate with their families verbally, it’s possible that they won’t be able to write in their native language. This is very extreme, but what would happen if the child didn’t retain enough of their native language to even communicate with their families? I think back to the native American children who were taken from their families and sent to boarding school. When they returned, many of them could no longer communicate or even understand their native culture. While I’m not implying that this is in any way happening at the boarding schools in Thailand, we have talked a lot about how there is an emphasis on being Thai here opposed to another identity. The kids learn Thai in schools, they sing the Thai national anthem in the morning, and are taught aspects of Thai culture such as dance. I’m not sure what opportunities there are to learn about their native culture. I think the boarding school we visited was better about integrating some of the children’s native cultures, but I don’t know that every boarding school is the same way. If a child doesn’t have the same connection to their native culture as their family, I would imagine conflict arises out of that. For example, immigrants who move to the U.S. often experience generational conflicts with their children. I think it’s hard for parents when the children begin adopting more and more of the American culture and leave behind aspects of the native culture. Culture helps forms bonds through celebrations, rituals, and many other things. When a parent and a child no longer share the same culture I could imagine relating to one another would be difficult.

Finally, at the boarding school we learned that the main focus is teaching the students vocational work so that they can return to their villages. When they do return I would imagine at that point they are more formally educated than their parents. How does this affect the roles of parent and child? The child may take on a more authoritative or instructive role if they are teaching the parents something they learned about farming for example. In that instance they are stepping out of the role of child and the parents are no longer in their traditional parental role either. There is almost a role reversal happening. This role reversal often happens over the lifespan especially as parents require caregiving from their children. Even towards the end of life, this role reversal is hard on a parent. negotiating the new roles is even harder. Imagine this role reversal happening earlier in the lifespan when the child is 18-20 and the parent is middle aged. There has to be conflict or at least strain on the relationships in the family when this happens.

Formal Education in Thailand
Amanda: Once only provided by Buddhist monks to boys, Thailand now provides formal education to all genders and mandates schooling from ages six to fifteen. Although it is not compulsory for children to attend preschool, there are nurseries and preschools offered for children age’s three to five. Government or public schools are free for Thai nationals. Children that have at least one Thai parent are considered Thai nationals if their birth was registered in Thailand by the Thai parent. As a Thai national, they are able to register in a Thai public school and receive all of the educational benefits allocated to a Thai national. Despite these large strides to make formal education inclusive, UNICEF claims that 600,000 primary school age children in Thailand are not currently attending schools. Reasons for this range from having to work and help support their families to lack of accessibility with no efficient transportation to reaching these facilities.

During my time here in Thailand, there have been numerous stories and sights that have moved me both as a future teacher and as a human being. On the border of Laos, children beg around merchant shops to new coming tourists; one girl had her face half-scarred from scalding water due to her mother’s hopes that she could obtain more money that way. In Chiang Rai, I encountered a girl trying to steal money from my bag for reasons I will never truly know. On our rides back to the hotel, I often sat in silence—feeling powerless that I could not help or change the situations that transpired before me.

I had the great pleasure of getting to know our Buffalo Tour Guide, Eve Rungrada. Born and raised in a poor, rural border village in southern Thailand, Eve studied with the rest of her six other classmates, all of whom were girls. It was not uncommon to see unfamiliar men come into the village and approach parents, offering work for their daughters and sons in Bangkok. Unfortunately for these children they were part of the Green Zone, completely unaware that the parents that were supposed to protect them were selling them off to work and sex traffickers. Eve was lucky as she was top student of her class and obtained a scholarship to continue her education at Suksasongkroh Chiang Dao School. Her best friend, however, placed second and received no such aid. At the age of twelve, Eve desolately watched her friend leave for Bangkok, unaware that this was the last time she would ever see her. Years later while attending Mae Fah Luang University, she discovered that her best friend was involved in prostitution and died of HIV/AIDS.blog2.jpeg
Research shows that people born into poverty are likely to continue to live that way as adults. This is a recognized problem in Thailand and it is laws like the National Education Act, that institutions like the Chiang Dao School are helping to bridge the equity and opportunity gaps. Among the rural population of Thailand, hill tribes such as the Karen, Hmong, and Lahu, are disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society, being largely dependent on agriculture for income and employment. The role of education in improving socio-economic conditions through human resource development is well recognized. While there is no single solution to the alleviation of rural poverty, I believe education, whether formal or non-formal, is one of the most critical elements for a better life. With basic education people are better equipped to make more informed decisions for their lives and communities, while being active participants in promoting the economic, social and cultural dimensions of development. It is equally accepted that without basic literacy and numeracy, people face limited employment opportunities, except for basic wage labour. Promoting education and training opportunities is therefore essential for poverty alleviation and sustainable rural development.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed my time at the Chiang Dao School and was thrilled to connect with the many children who attended there. The continued incorporation of home language, dance, and dress was a welcoming sight and the students who attended looked genuinely happy. With that being said, I think Thailand is on a good path but can continue to make improvements.  I was curious how the school’s push for learning the Thai language and culture was affecting their own self-identity. Personal identity is the way one sees themselves and is closely related to their self image. It is very important because it affects the way one feels about themselves and how they behave in challenging situations. I also believe Thailand needs to find more ways to further accessibility of education to all children of Thailand whether it be formal or vocational training. No child, whether they are from the hill tribes or on the streets of Bangkok should have to worry about selling themselves to survive.
The Mekong River School
    The two main river systems of Thailand are the Chao Phraya and the Mekong (Mae Nam khong). Together, these two rivers support the irrigation for the agricultural economy in Thailand. The Mekong River is the 11th largest river in the world and runs through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For hundreds of years the Mekong’s predictable rising and falling water levels have: Deposited sediments that improve soil fertility, sustain the productivity of freshwater fisheries, provide water for irrigation, and dilute stagnant and polluted waters.  According to Great Rivers Partnerships, “of the 60 million people who live in the lower Mekong Basin, 80 percent rely directly on the river system for their food and livelihoods.”


    In 2008, massive flooding brought devastating damage to Thailand as hundreds of homes were submerged in water. Many locals had thought it was due to พญานาค (Phaya Naga) that aggravated flooding in the region. . The true nemeses, however, were the Chinese dams and the destruction of small Mekong river islands to give passage for Chinese cargo ships. These dams allow China to control water levels in the water, and when their cargo ships become stuck, they release great amounts of water, leading to the floods. In recent years, locals in Thailand have reported less fish coming from the river and less water available in the dry season for agricultural use. This is where the role of long time advocate Kru Ti and others who founded the Mekong School play a crucial part in the welfare and sustainability in these communities.
It was always a dream of Kru Ti to have a school right on the river and work to preserve the natural environment and resources of the Mekong. The Mekong School serves as a bridge between locals and government and provides them both with valuable knowledge. The Mekong River school network wrote a book that consists of community knowledge of fish populations and species. This information really showcases the necessity of local knowledge and how it can aid government officials in their political decisions. The Mekong School has also provided the community residents knowledge on how dams, runoff, Chinese ships, rapids, and construction on habitat has lead to the current changes of the Mekong and how Northern Thailand can unite their voices and bring change through the court systems.


One of the most intimate experiences I had with the Mekong School was our visit to Moung Chum, a nearby Thai village, and the work they have done to conserve their wetland and community forests.  Oot, the Mekong School ecologist, and others went out to local villages and worked with them on creating more sustainable communities. The village leader spoke of how their biggest problem 10 years ago was that the people had cut down most of the trees and did not have enough water for irrigation in the dry season. By replanting trees and allowing the forests to regrow, the trees brought groundwater up to the surface. This and the community’s  joint effort to build small, eco-friendly dams allowed them to retain the water they needed. I was shocked when I was told many of the locations were completely cleared of trees only a decade ago. The beauty of these areas were breathtaking and the pride in the village leader’s eyes made it all the more brilliant.

The people and work of the Mekong School will be something I remember for the rest of my life. Through informal education, villagers are empowered to stand up for their environments and ways of life. Not only has the Mekong School brought a voice to the adults in the community but they have instilled healthy practices by involving youth in active learning. Children physically participate in conservation such as learning how to plant saplings and learn about their cultural history and traditions through practicing dances and playing traditional instruments and keeping their languages. This involvement reiterates the importance of collective contributions and its role in actual change and improvements. Like Kru Ti has voiced, the Mekong it is not one person or country’s river; for all to benefit there must be a united effort in conserving the environment for present and future  generations to enjoy.

Education is intertwined in many aspects of life here in Thailand. We each see it playing out in different ways based on our past experiences and future professions. Ka used her perspective as a future educator to discuss the hidden curriculum found in schools as well as Buddhism. I (Katie) used my perspective as a future family scientist to discuss how education might impact the relationships within the community and the family systems. Amanda used her perspective as a future educator to discuss how education might shape the identify of an individual, help aid in environmental stability, and provide opportunities for youth. There are so many things that haven’t been said in this blog that could be said about education but our time and space are limited.  We hope that reading our perspectives on what we’ve learned from our experiences and interactions while in this course will give you a glimpse of some aspects of education in Thailand.   

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